Children have a fixation with the downright gruesome. I found this out when I recently re-discovered the picture book Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman. My six year old nephew, the kid, has become fixated with Struwwelpeter’s pretty stories and funny pictures. This beautiful work is the ideal material to ignite a child’s fecund imagination.
In 1834, Heinrich Hoffman was a doctor in his native city of Frankfurt, dividing his time between a private practice and a state progressive mental hospital. When he was treating children, to put them at ease, he would recant amusing popular tales. One December he searched earnestly for a book to buy his three-year-old boy as a present. To his disdain he could only find,
long tales, stupid collections of pictures, moralising and ending with admonitions like, ‘the good child must be truthful.’
His disappointment gave birth to one of the most exquisitely crafted collections for children. He bought a blank sketchpad and conjured up what is now a distinguished picture book. Friends urged the doctor to have it published and in 1845, the first edition was produced. The original Stuwwelpeter was prettily printed in only five colours. An anonymous English translation appeared in Britain in 1848. Maurice Sendak, author of popular children’s story, Where The Wild Things Are describes it as:
Graphically one of the most beautiful books in the world.
The ten stories are caricatures of the popular cautionary tales of the time.
- Shockhead Peter.
- The story of Cruel Frederick.
- The dreadful story about Harriet and the matches.
- The story of the inky boys.
- The story of the man who went out shooting.
- The story of ‘little suck a thumb’.
- The story of Augustus who would not have any soup.
- The story of fidgety Philip.
- The story of Johnny head-in-air.
- The story of flying Robert.
The traditional tales contain warnings against bad manners, untidiness, animal cruelty, playing with fire, hunting, being fussy, fidgeting and daydreaming. All relayed with a macabre and imaginative style. The kid and I are obsessed with the sixth nefarious tale of ‘Little suck a thumb.’ Conrad’s mother warns him not to suck his thumb when she is out of the house.
The great tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs,
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off – and then,
You know, they never grow again.
Mother leaves, Conrad sucks his thumbs and you can guess the rest…
‘The great, long, red-legg’d scissor man’, is the stuff of nocturnal nightmares and it is the unaffected facial gesture and simplicity of the illustration accompanying the text that is the most alarming.
We can see comparisons to Struwwelpeter in the writing of Tim Burton, Tom Baker and Spike Milligan. There is no doubt that when writing The Magic Finger, Roald Dahl must have read the warning fable, the story of the man who went out shooting. It is funny how parents pass on to kids cautionary warnings that now, as an adult when I think about them, are quite bizarre. There is nothing more acidulous than a Liverpudlian mum’s warnings:
If you sit too close to that TV, you will have square eyes.
After reading Hoffman, I put out a call to my social media pals to ask about advisory comments that were passed on by their parents. What a list!
Who are you calling she? She? She’s the cats mother.
If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.
If you swallow apple pips, a tree will grow later.
…to name but a few.
I wonder what will we pass down to our children, what imaginative and inventive codes of conduct?
Jenny would slump in front of the telly,
Be careful Nanny Franny said,
Or your brain will turn to jelly,
But did she listen, no sir, she did not.
The television buzzing turned her brain to rot.
Her eyes were as square as the box too,
She would not even leave watching,
To go to the loo!
She became smelly and stinky
She looked quite lost.
A life stolen by garbage, what a terrible cost.
UK readers can buy a copy of Struwwelpeter from an independent bookshop near you via this affiiate link. This site may earn a small commission if you do.